Personal Reflections on a Foundation’s Equity Journey

Nick Donohue
Jun 22, 2018 · 4 min read

Our journey at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in reviewing our organizational strategy through an equity lens has been an enlightening, challenging, and rewarding one. It’s also been a deeply personal and reflective experience for me. This work has helped me to close the gap between my espoused values and my actions as a foundation leader and as a person.

I want to start by acknowledging that philanthropic organizations have a privilege where they get to stop and start things in ways that are often abrupt for the people they build relationships with. This is not lost on me. That’s one of the reasons why we’re taking more than a year to really ask people what they think about our work — to ensure that we are building on our organizational strengths and assets. It would be ironic if in the name of focusing on equity, and specifically racial equity, we skipped over the part about really understanding more fully what people think.

Adopting a racial equity lens as an organization does not necessarily mean making a shift to focus on work only related to race and equity, but it does mean bringing down that filter of racial equity on the work we’re doing regardless of what it is.

I’ve always had a heartfelt commitment to advancing public education so it works for all students, but through this journey, I’ve come to see the limits of my own thinking and ideas. Social justice work only works when thinking is enriched by the good ideas of others. A strategy focused on advancing equity in education needs to be deeply rooted in relationship and community, and in a larger movement.

As a white foundation CEO, I’ve been trained to think that my own individual agency has shaped my success and leadership. But my birth circumstance and color of my skin have deeply shaped the opportunities I’ve been provided throughout my life, and the lens in which I see myself leading change in education. I’ve learned that if Nellie Mae is interested in making a bigger change, this means getting more consultation from folks that are living the situations we try to combat daily and challenging some long-held behaviors and beliefs organizationally and personally.

Examining our work through an equity lens has allowed me to reflect on my own approach to leadership. My leadership style could be described as a binary one — I tend to be directive and definitive or I give people room to operate and exercise their own thinking. I’ve learned that both of these tendencies still exacerbate an individual frame, rather than a collective one that is needed to advance racial justice work.

This is also important for how we represent ourselves externally. I’m the first to admit that Nellie Mae has had too many closed RFPs, strategies developed behind closed doors, and decisions made without listening to the field. By being insular, we’re exempting the important lived experiences and contextual information about the things we’re trying to change. This doesn’t mean we’ll start putting all of our grants out for community vote. Abdicating complete control would mean we’d also be withholding all of the experience we’ve developed as an organization. I’ve learned that it’s not about toggling from one extreme to the other — but correcting how that power is balanced. And I think of it as becoming less of a competition of ideas than a joint learning and problem-solving effort.

Honestly, this process has left me with feelings of anxiety and vulnerability; I often feel responsible for the limits that we have as an organization. But I’ve come to learn that this feeling is in of itself a form of self-importance. Dominant white culture has a long history in our society, and is reinforced in many ways through our institutions, schools, and communities. So I seek to balance the responsibility and opportunity I have with humility in the form of remembering not everything about Nellie Mae is my doing or within my individual power to influence.

Racism is not something that disappears overnight; there’s not a single solution. But relationships — and broad, enduring networks of relationships — can be an antidote to this; a force to combat structural inequities that permeate every corner of our society. Racism wilts in the face of love and connection between human beings. And racism is strong enough that we need to exercise the power of relationships in the name of decisive, persistent, and ardent interruption and disruption of racist patterns, mindsets, behaviors, and organizational structures and social norms. Learning is often about this kind of dissonance — calling into question commonly held assumptions and giving people space to reflect on their beliefs.

As we move forward in this journey, I am committed to ensuring that we can make our grantmaking better and more effective, that our organization becomes a place that is a preferred workplace for a diverse and talented staff, and that we serve as allies in the field of racial equity in public education. I am growing and learning as we move through this process and would invite any thinking you may have about your own — or your organization’s — experiences combatting inequities in public education.

Strategy Review

Nellie Mae shares updates and reflections from our strategy and equity journey

Nick Donohue

Written by

President & CEO of @NellieMaeEdFdn: leading efforts to reshape public education to be more equitable & more effective for all learners.

Strategy Review

Nellie Mae shares updates and reflections from our strategy and equity journey

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